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The Tools of the Trade

Kate Aimson
Originally published Imbolc 2000

Witches practice a craft and revere their tools (no, seriously, I need to be able to say tools without you sniggering). The tools we associate with witches are all ancient domestic objects. They have the oldest associations with human life, therefore have many customs and superstitions attached to them.

Stories about witches detail their brooms, cauldrons, sickles, crystal balls, spinning wheels, even ovens. These are mentioned in passing in the stories, because they merely illustrate how witches used ordinary objects to weave their spells. It was the use they made of their tools that counted.

Domestic Tools

Spinning wheels appear in the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin. The art of spinning has always been a big part of domestic life. Until about 1550 all thread was spun with a distaff and spindle. The distaff is a cleft stick, which holds the carded wool or plant fibres. The spindle is a straight stick weighted with a detachable whorl at the bottom. The spinner (or spinster?) pulls the fibres out with one hand, twisting them between finger and thumb and winding the thread onto the spindle. The spinning wheel, which was operated by a foot treadle, leaving both hands free to work the thread, appeared around 1550 in wealthy households.1 Of course, there was a crossover period as more and more people got spinning wheels, instead of spindles.

Archaeologists find spindle whorls buried in graves. Genealogists refer to the ‘distaff’ side of the family, meaning the female side and the term spinster is still the legal term for an unmarried woman. The tools of the spinner are deeply imbedded in our language and folklore.

After the Black Death, life became more prosperous for ordinary people. Two of the most important new additions to a good farm were a dairy and an oven. These additions to the most basic life become part of myth and superstition. Stories which relate the involvement of fairies in the dairy, ie trying to stop the buttermaking, go back to this age. The witch is often seen with her oven, eg cooking Hansel and Gretel, another indication of a very old story.

Talking of ovens, we know salamanders as fire elementals. However, there is also an implement called a salamander. These were made in metal, often shaped like the lizard itself. They were heated in the kitchen fire, which was always burning, then carried into another room, where a fire was laid and ready to be set alight. This is described in Allison Uttley’s ‘The Country Child’:

“On Christmas Eve fires blazed in the kitchen and parlour, even in the bedrooms. Becky ran from room to room with the red hot salamander which she stuck between the bars to make a blaze.”2 What a tool for a witch!

The Means of Production

Another tool for a witch as social outcast and rebel would be the quern. Quern stones were shaped stones to grind grain to flour by simple but strenuous handwork. In Mediaeval times, querns were made illegal. Why? So that no-one could make their own flour, but had to take it to the mill and then pay a mill tax. This was paid by coin, or in kind, with a cut of the flour. To have this simple tool was literally “ownership of the means of production”. Here we can see the importance of the ownership of a tool to a person’s life. To own a tool was essential to a craft. Ownership of the correct tools was almost synonymous with a craft. So ownership of a broomstick, cauldron, crystal ball, pointy hat, black cat, etc very nearly made you a witch.

Tools Magical Links to Their Owners

Superstition illustrates the magical link between owner and tool. When a Northumbrian reaper cut his hand on a sickle, the tool was cleaned and polished to help mend the wound. Similarly, if an injury was caused by a rusty nail, it was taken to the blacksmith’s for the rust to be removed. It was then polished carefully every day before sunrise and after sunset until the wound healed. The link between the man and the tool was strong enough for contagious magic to be worked.3

Craftsmen and their tools are also described in ‘The Country Child’2. The annual arrival of the Irish men to do the mowing is described. The barn is prepared for them to live in and:

Tom and Dan fetched all the rakes and two-pronged forks from the corner where they had been stacked for the winter … The long scythes were lifted down from the barn walls, and honed until they gleamed … New teeth were made and fitted in the wooden rakes.”

But when the Irishmen arrived

“The most important of the men were Patrick and Corney and Andy, the mowers … They tied their corduroy trousers with twisted grass below the knee, … and at the backs of their leather belts they carried sockets holding their whetstones. They brought their own scythes wrapped in sacking on their backs.”

The mowers were craftsmen, not labourers and therefore owned and carried their own tools.

The link between the life of a person and the tools of their trade is seen everywhere. What lies behind this story from Derbyshire? 4 Ann Brightmore married at Wormhill Church. She was working at Wormhill Hall, and when it was time she went to the church with her broom still in her hand. The groom had been mending the roof, and came down to be married with the trowel still in his hand. Why did they think it necessary to be married with the tools of the trade in their hands? The explanation given was that they were always as devoted to each other as they were to their work.

At hiring fairs, where servants were contracted for a year in living memory, people stood with a symbolic tool to advertise their willingness to work in that trade. These fairs were also known as ‘mop fairs’ because of this. A story illustrates this relationship between a servant and their tool. A farmer’s wife in North Derbyshire wanted to take on a servant, and had the choice of several girls. Each was coming at a different time for an interview. Her manservant suggested a test: a besom was laid across the front path, and they watched form the window. The first girl kicked the besom aside. They said ‘She’s an idle slut, and can’t bend her back.’ The second girl simply jumped over the broom. 'She won’t do, she’ll skip her work', was the verdict. The third picked up the besom and put it away. She was given the job as she had shown herself to be careful, industrious and tidy.

The Making of an Object in its Entirety

An example of a tool handmade to the purpose and very closely linked to the personality of the user is a knitting sheath.5 Early knitting needles were made without knobs on the ends, and a special tool, the knitting sheath, was made to support one needle in the work. It was tucked under the arm or hooked on to the waistband of a skirt or apron to enable the knitter to work more quickly and easily. Many people augmented their incomes by knitting while they minded sheep or travelled by horse and cart. The sheaths are usually made of wood, have a hole in the top to take one end of the needle. There is a wide variety of shapes, mostly characteristic of a particular area. Many were made by a sweetheart as a love token, like the love spoons of Wales. If you want to see these wonderfully personal tools, the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes(i) houses the Agar Collection of Knitting Sheaths. If you could handle one, what a wonderful exercise in psychometry it would be! The lives of the sweetheart making the sheath and the owner knitting while she tended the sheep are totally entwined in the one object.

The link to the owner is also seen in the bobbins used to make Pillow lace. In early times, this was called bone lace, because bone bobbins were used. Pillow lace production was centred in the South West and The East Midlands.6

A striking difference between the two areas is that in the South West, the bobbins are all mass-produced to a uniform design, whereas in the East Midlands there are infinite varieties of bobbins. One lacemaker would rarely own two bobbins alike. Why this difference developed between the two traditions I do not know, but in the East Midlands the tools of the trade were an expression of the personality of the owner. Bobbins were made by specialist manufacturers or general woodturners. In the East Midlands each bobbin would be manufactured individually and often be highly decorated. They would also be customised by the owner. Lacemakers would sometimes put their own charms or mementoes on the end instead of the ordinary ‘spangle’ of beads: boot buttons, army buttons, shells, coins, in fact anything with a hole in it. Inscriptions were burnt in or added with pins or thorns. Messages might be ‘kiss me quick’ or ‘Forget me not’, or even ‘I wants a husband’. Again they might be handcarved by a sweetheart as a love token. These tools illustrate the typical ways in which people made their possessions personal to them.

The Fewer Your Possessions, The Greater Their Value

Lacemakers also used a tool made famous by witches. The crystal ball is now only used for magical purposes, but was once a household tool. Lacemakers used to maximise the light available from a candle by putting it on a ‘candle block’ or ‘flash stool’.. An adjustable candlestick was fixed in the middle of a high-legged stool, and around it were placed up to six wooden sockets that held long-necked globes of water, the ‘flashes’ or flasks. These would concentrate the beams of light on to the work. Objects like this were in widespread use to enable people to work in the darker hours. In a richer household they might be crystal balls. So the most mystical object of the witch is again only a domestic tool used in a magical way - for scrying. Candles were also placed in front of mirrors to increase the light available for work. There is something very magical about working a spell in a mirror by candlelight, and many traditional spells use this. So mirrors were a domestic tool before they were magic mirrors. The household books of Naworth Castle, near Carlisle, detail housekeeping between 1618-1633. There is included nine shillings (45p - Ed) for ‘a little looking glass’ to be used to double the light of a candle.1 The books list needlework tools, payments for spinning and weaving, and buying items like pins from pedlars.

By the Seventeenth Century pedlars covered all the country and carried household items and, more specifically, threads, tools, dyes, needles and pins. Most people would only have the chance to buy such items from a pedlar (also known as a packman or chapman) or at fairs. Anything that was needed between these times of opportunity must be made. In early times everything was homemade and people could return to these methods if necessary. Thorns were used as pins, fish bones and carved bone for needles. Scissors were shears or snips of iron, made by the blacksmith. There are references to needlework tools from Roman times, but they increase greatly through the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries as they were increasingly manufactured as a product, rather than made at home by the individual.

The very few possessions that a person owned increased their importance by their scarcity. Inventories of an entire household could be written on a single sheet of parchment. A published example of this is the inventory of a blacksmith’s household in 1643.7 The personal importance of a handmade tool, and the objects made with it, is something we should strive for in witchcraft.

Tools are Also Made

One way we could try this out is to make a magical pincushion. I think a pincushion containing pins for use in magic deserves to be ranked with the besom, cauldron, and crystal ball as an essential tool of the trade for a witch. Pins were such as essential household item that they completely saturate folklore, superstition and custom.

Pins were used for sewing, as fastenings for dress and household items. Originally, if not handmade as above, they were manufactured in brass or copper alloy. In his ‘Description of England (1587)’9, William Harrison noted that pin-making had begun in England in the 1570s, and that the English pin-makers ‘excel all nations’.. Pins were made by sharpening a straight piece of wire and winding a thinner-gauge wire around the other end, which was hammered on to make the head. Not until 1824 was a solid pin invented.

Pins were also handmade and customised in various ways. Burrs were plucked from goosegrass, the outer skin scraped off and stuck on the wire. As they dried, they would contract and form a brown pinhead. These were called burrheads or sweethearts. We cannot even contemplate making such trivial tools as pins these days, but imagine the people who did. Then imagine the power of a magical working, where even the pin used is a handmade tool totally imbued with your spirit.

Pins and Magic

Pins were used in every way by witches. The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle (ii) has cases and cases of items where the spell has cast by sticking with pins. Here are two examples of spells by the wiseman William Dawson, who practised in County Durham in the early Nineteenth Century. 8

A wealthy man asked why he was losing so many of his stock. Having ascertained witchcraft as the cause, Dawson told the farmer to remove the heart from one of the dead beasts and pierce it with nine new nails, nine new pins and nine needles. The heart was then to be ritually burnt.

A young man was thought to be bewitched. So “clippings from every finger and toe nail of the patient, with hair from each temple, and the crown of his head were stuffed into the throat of a pigeon which had previously been placed between the patient’s feet, and there had died at once, thus attesting the witchery from which he was suffering. The bird’s bill was riveted with three pins and then the wiseman thrust a pin into its breast, to reach the heart, everybody else in the room following his example.”

Another way a witch used a pin is illustrated here from Derbyshire.4 A young girl was engaged to a man with light hair. The girl met a witch who told her she must marry a dark haired man. The witch gave the girl a triangular shaped piece of paper, which she pricked three times. The girl was to wear the paper next to her bosom ad three weeks later; the paper would have the name of her dark-haired husband-to-be.

Pins were used in folk custom. In Derbyshire they were dropped into wells.4 Some wells were known as pin-wells. For example in Bradwell on Easter Sunday the children used to drop pins in the five wells of the village. They said that a fairy lived at each well and knew whether a child had dropped a pin in or not. On Easter Monday the children would walk around all day with bottles of sweetened and/or flavoured water. The bottles of the children who had dropped pins into the wells remained intact, whereas the bottles of the children, who had not, broke.

Dropping pins in wells must be ancient and widespread, as the Roman Coventina’s Well on Hadrian’s Wall contained may pins when it was excavated.

Pins were so associated with domestic life that a married woman’s money, which she could spend herself with no reference to her husband, was called pin money.

There are two examples from Derbyshire of people with strange manias for pins.4 Pin Tommy walked the streets of Derby in the 1830s. Every pin he found or was given was added to his clothing until it was like a suit of armour. It was said that he would rather go hungry than swop one of his pins for food. Perhaps he was obsessed by the proverb:

“See a pin and pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,

see a pin and let it lie, all day long your luck will die.”

Kitty Hudson (also called the human pincushion) was born in Arnold, near Nottingham, in 1765. She developed a habit of swallowing pins, and in fact could not get to sleep without pins in her mouth. She was finally admitted to hospital and over a long period of time, pins, needles, and pieces of bone were removed from all over her body. On being discharged she married, had nineteen children who all died, was widowed, remarried and eventually settled in South Wingfield, Derbyshire. For the rest of her life, pins would occasionally erupt from her skin. Not recommended!

However, the making of a pincushion is strongly recommended. In the Nineteenth Century rectangular cushion- shaped pincushions were made for an event like a homecoming, a birth, or a marriage, and a message or wish spelt out on it in pins. Again, they were made as love tokens, especially by sailors and soldiers for their sweethearts at home. A benign spell could be worked in this way. Prepare your pincushion, then write your words on a piece of tracing paper. Pin the four corners of the paper to your pincushion, then spell out the words, sticking the pins through the tracing paper into the pincushion. When you have finished, tear away the paper.

Your pincushion could of course hold pins for ill-wishing spells, or just general work, like candle spells. You could make a simple cushion, or follow an old fashion like making a pincushion by glueing a pad into the opening of a large shell. Novelty pincushions were also made of pads fixed in a small turned wooden cauldron, which would be ideal.

Know Your Tools and How To Use Them

Other tools you may wish to have are needles, scissors, thimbles, or a chatelaine. Use them with a knowledge of their history.

Needles could be home-made as we have seen, but they were imported in the Sixteenth Century. The Germans, and especially the Spanish, were highly skilled in steelworking. These gradually replaced needles made from iron wire, made in England, which easily bent and broke. By Mary Tudor’s time high-quality needles were being made and sold in London in a shop owned by a Spanish Moor. Steel needles were eventually produced industrially in England, and you may wish to visit the Forge Mill Needle Museum in Redditch.(iii) There is not as much superstition attached to needles as pins, but factory seamstresses used to say that they would never lend each other needles as it would ‘prick’ their friendship.

Scissors were available in this country from 1550-1600, again being made by Spanish Moors in Toledo and Cordoba. Only these steel scissors were sharp and delicate enough for detailed sewing work. Superstitions attached to scissors are that if someone gives you a present of scissors, you must give them a coin, or ‘cut’ the friendship. Professional seamstresses used to say that they would never pick up scissors they had dropped themselves, but that they must let someone else do it.

They considered it very unlucky to lose a thimble, perhaps because being especially fitted to one finger, and always worn on that finger, it contained something of the essence of the owner. The link between owner and tool was close enough for contagious magic, as we have seen. Thimbles have a very long history and were made as a result of the need to protect the finger when pushing unpolished needles through coarse cloth. Tailors and sailmakers have their own specialised forms of thimble. Maybe some of our older readers can remember an old party game ‘hunt the thimble’.

Chatelaines developed in mediaeval times from the necessity of the lady of the castle (the chatelaine) to carry all keys on her person, attached to her belt. An Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century chatelaine had a number of chains suspended from a central clip, with a different item hanging at the end of each e.g. a thimble in a case (often acorn-shaped), scissors, penknife, pincushion, needlecase, pencil and pad.These became decorative items, almost an item of jewellery. Something along these lines would make a lovely present for a witch, either as jewellery or a decorative way of carrying magical tools on a belt.

Nowadays, much published ritual is about the agricultural year, but about corn and plants, suitable for arable areas. If you live in a pastoral area, or owe allegiance to one, make your own rituals with wool: spinning, knitting and dyeing and knotting as in previous issues of White Dragon. Then spindle, distaff, knitting needles and sheaths will be magical tools for you. Perhaps knitters could knit some spells (perhaps you can write the Llewellyn Guide to Traditional Shepherd Hereditary Witchcraft).

Above all, cultivate the spirit of a craftsperson. In pre-industrial times and communities, people were taught from childhood how to use tools with their hands. In ‘The Country Child’ 2 Susan remembers that summer when she was seven: “For the first time in her life allowed to use a rake, one a little smaller than the others, which she slowly pulled over the hay careful lest a tooth should be broken out, or a piece of hay should be left lying loose on the green grass."

Children were taught how to use and care for tools. They were also shown how they did their job, and the correct way to use them. In Needlework For Student Teachers (c. 1923) 9 it was explained how to teach this:

“Teachers cannot be too particular in enforcing the proper use of thimble and needle. No child will ever become a skilful worker until it has a complete mastery over its tools; and to teach the correct position of needle, thread and thimble at the right time, viz., before material is used (i.e. work is started) must be the aim of every teacher. By neglected this step progress is retarded … and good results are next to impossible” and again “Children must not be allowed to do as they please in the matter of holding their implements with the hope that eventually the best way will suggest itself to the child’s mind.” With a few altered words, this could almost be instructions for a school for wizards. Is this relevant to you in your magical use of tools?

For example, if you are going to use a magical sickle to cut herbs for your spells, learn about the tool, its history, how to sharpen it, how to hold it in your hand, what angle to it in your hold, what angle to cut. Teach yourself if there was no one to teach you as a child. Then with time you will know the depth of relationship between the owner, the tool and the work they produce. Think about what your magical tools actually are and where they come from, and se whether other tools are more relevant to you, and therefore more magically appropriate to you than an athame or cauldron.

Book List

1.The Embroiderer’s Story, Thomasina Beck, David and Charles 1999
2.The Country Child, Alison Uttley, Puffin 1970
3.Customs and Traditions of Northumbria, Coquet Editions 1991
4.Derbyshire Folklore, John N Merril, Trail Crest Publications 1993
5.Needlework and Embroidery Tools, Eleanor Johnson, Shire Publications 1999
6.Pillow Lace and Bobbins , Jeff Hopewell, Shire Publications 1999
7.The Blacksmith’s House, Joy James, A & C Black 1979
8.Myth and Magic of Northumbria, Coquet Editions 1992
9.Needlework for Student Teachers, Amy I C Smith, Pitmans c1923

Places to Visit

Dales Countryside Museum

Station Yard
North Yorkshire

The Agar Collection of Knitting Sheaths

The Museum Of Witchcraft

The Harbour

Forge Mill Needle Museum and Bordesley Abbey Visitor Centre

Forge Mill
Needle Mill Lane
B98 8HY

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